Simon Stiell, U.N. climate chief, speaks during a closing plenary session at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: AP)
Hearing Gianni Infantino, Fifa’s Swiss-born ethnic Italian president, declare "I think for what we Europeans have been doing the last 3,000 years, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people", millions of TV watchers worldwide may have wondered if it was the moment of truth, the epiphany that would erase the difference between East and West, rich and poor, and save mankind from extinction through floods, fires and all the catastrophic effects of climate change.
For it was the last day of a contentious two-week conference on saving a world teetering on the edge of destruction, desertification and drowning. But, no, Mr Infantino wasn’t addressing the COP27 (Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) summit in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh where the representatives of 200 nations were haggling on who would have to pay the price of industrialisation. He was speaking in Qatar on the eve of the World Cup soccer tournament.
The White House reckons that floods, drought, wildfires and hurricanes exacerbated by climate change could cost Washington about $2 trillion annually by the end of the century.
Delayed by a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, COP27 left effective action for COP28 to be held at the end of 2023. In theory, however, the developed nations agreed at last Sunday’s dawn session to create a "loss and damage fund" to help the developing countries pay for the disastrous consequences of climate change.
The crucial question of who will finance the fund and who will be entitled to draw on it has been left to the future, and probably even more painfully protracted wrangling.
But for Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry, who presided over the tumultuous two weeks of bargaining, this represented "the highest ambition that can be reached at this time". He saw the agreement as "a gateway" to more substantive, far-reaching actions to counter the effects of climate change and the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns that destroyed the Indus Valley civilisation in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, accounted for damage worth more than $30 billion in Pakistan’s devastating floods, and threatens to obliterate the independent Pacific island of Tuvalu.
Since the 1800s, human activities -- not natural causes -- have been the main driver of climate change, primarily because burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas generate greenhouse gas emissions that act like a blanket wrapped around the Earth, trapping the sun’s heat and raising temperatures so that icebergs melt, forests burn and the oceans rise.
The United States had previously opposed the plan for a disaster-aversion fund, fearing it might have to bankroll it. The $11.4 billion that President Joe Biden has promised may be a drop in the ocean of global needs, although American officials who attended the Sharm el-Sheikh summit argued that it would suffice for Washington’s international climate commitments.
The draft agreement says nothing about the demand to phase out all polluting fossil fuels. India, which relies heavily on coal, initially led the push to broaden the phasedown to include natural gas and oil. Later, the United States, the European Union and other vulnerable countries also backed the call. China and Saudi Arabia didn’t. Nor did the energy-poor African nations.
A core commitment of last year’s landmark Glasgow Climate Pact, reached at COP26 which targeted only coal, was to reassemble more quickly than planned and persuade many countries to accelerate their efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions even more. That didn’t happen. It probably would not have happened even if Covid-19 had not intervened.
Inspired by the British politician, Alok Sharma, the pact also called for a doubling of finance to help developing countries to adapt to climate change and build resilience. Moreover, Glasgow established a work programme to define a global goal on adaptation, which will identify collective needs and solutions to the crisis already affecting many countries.
While the need to adapt is not disputed, some of the most vulnerable communities are also the least able to adapt because they are poor and already struggling to mobilise resources for basics like health care and education. It has been estimated that adaptation costs in developing countries could reach $300 billion every year by 2030. Right now, only 21 per cent (or about $16.8 billion annually) of the climate finance provided by richer countries to assist developing nations goes towards adaptation and resilience.
The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in December 1997 although it did not enter into force until February 2005, was one of the earliest action-oriented expressions of collective global concern. The protocol’s 192 parties operationalized the UNFCC by committing industrialised countries and economies in transition to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets.
A number of countries have developed national adaptation plans since 2011, but a more aggressive version of the global adaptation fund, which already finances pioneering initiatives in developing countries like Costa Rica, Ghana, Djibouti and even India, is obviously needed. The wealthier countries are supposed to fulfil their commitment made in the Paris agreement to provide $100 billion a year in international climate finance. At least half of this should go to adaptation. This would be an important symbol of global solidarity in the face of a challenge we can only solve if everyone works together.
The Paris agreement, a legally binding international treaty adopted by 196 parties at COP21 in December 2015, was a landmark in the multilateral climate change process because, for the first time, a binding agreement brought all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat the peril. All the parties to the agreement were committed to strengthening the global response by increasing the ability of all to adapt and build resilience, and reduce vulnerability.
The goal was to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. This long-term temperature goal, which is essential to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century, will remain elusive if governments continue to squander their resources on weapons, space programmes, massive statuary and elaborate, expensive and unnecessary city redevelopment. As Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain has pointed out, we already know how to make our communities safer, and must act on that knowledge in the interests of justice. The tragedy is that there’s a Nero fiddling away in every burning Rome.